Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Speakeasy: the Presentation of Nonverbal Messages in Public Speaking

Q: Have you ever witnessed a speech/presentation where the speaker remained completely motionless? How about a speech/presentation where the speaker had some part of their body moving the entire time?

Either of these can be rough to watch. In the first case, the audience ends up experiencing eye and neck fatigue, and eventually boredom. In the second, the only thing the audience can focus on is the constantly moving part of the speaker’s body. Distracting nonverbal habits can take the form of: crossing and uncrossing the legs, using the same hand to model the same gesture repeatedly, rocking on the feet, clapping hands together, standing in front of the same audience member repeatedly or pointing at the same audience member repeatedly, speaking too loudly or quietly, speaking too slowly or quickly, turning the back to the audience, looking at the feet while speaking, and too many more to list here.

Nonverbal communication can be the most difficult form of communication to master and at the same time, is often the most life-relevant form of communication to master. Below, are a few thoughts about the nonverbal aspects of public speaking:

•    Initiation (greetings, introductions, opening the speech): when opening a speech, I suggest to students to keep in mind who they are speaking to; audience analysis is a major part of the pre-speaking process. Remember to consider the use of handshakes, bows, and simple head nods as greeting options, since different cultures expect different behavior. It is important to research these norms ahead of time, and be comfortable using them in the appropriate context and with the applicable people.

•    Proxemics (the use of proximity or space to communicate): how close a speaker comes to his or her audience members depends on the number and nature of audience members, as well as the speaker’s goals. With a large audience, it may be more appropriate to stand, since it is necessary for the voice to carry and for students from all areas of the room to see the speaker clearly. However, with a small group, or with a peer group, it may be better to sit in a circle or conference type setting. This can help to keep audience members from feeling patronized or less important than the speaker. If the speaker wishes to establish a strong barrier between audience and speaker, as is often the case in traditionalist classrooms or with very young children, he or she should stand and take greater liberties with space and eye contact.

•    Vocalics or paralanguage (the use of voice tone, rate, volume, pitch, pause, cadence, etc.): the function of the voice depends on the situation. Are you trying to calm your audience, persuade them, inform them, or entertain them? If you are going for persuasion, you may choose to vary your tone and volume to emphasize certain points while minimizing others. If you are giving an informative speech, you might choose to lower your pitch, increase your cadence, and maintain a pleasing volume. It is suggested that speakers research voice norms applicable to the culture to which he or she is presenting.

•    Haptics (the use of touch to communicate): touch is usually not recommended for public speaking situations. This is because audience members usually expect a more observation-based experience than a participation-based experience, and sometimes are put off by speakers who take too many liberties with touch. Elder speakers can sometimes get away with touch, depending on the corresponding cultural norms. Also, children usually have less solidified touch boundaries and are therefore more receptive to the use of touch as a learning tool. If touch is to be used, remember to keep it to the hand, arm, or shoulder region. Other regions of the body, such as legs, neck, and mid to lower back, are usually considered personal space for audience members, and touching these can cause the audience to wonder at the speaker’s motives.

•    Gesturing (the use of a part of the body, especially the hand(s) or head, to communicate): The most important thing to keep in mind when gesturing is cultural appropriateness. Sometimes, members of a culture make a commonplace gesture without thinking about the possibility that it could offend or confuse members from different cultures in the audience. This can cause problems in certain situations, depending on the commonly accepted meaning of the gesture, how it is used, and the context in which it is being made. To be safe, stick with explanatory gestures when speaking, rather than culturally specific gestures. In other words, use the hands to describe objects of reference, or to illustrate points, rather than to express opinion, membership, or emotion.


Leathers, D., & Eaves, M. (2008). Successful nonverbal communication: Principles and applications (4th ed.). Boston: Pearson/Allyn and Bacon.

Sarah Minnich is the Public Speaking GA for Anderson School of Management and can be contacted here

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments and discussion may be moderated. Offensive content (including, but not limited to, racist, sexist, homophobic or anti-Semetic statements) may be deleted, as well as comments that insult, bully, threaten, harass or libel.